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Island soccer field is a mini United Nations

Players from an array of countries showcase their skills on a field in the Greenbelt

Monday, August 27, 2007


STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — If you saw the line of cars parked up and down Brielle Avenue in Sea View yesterday, just outside the entrance to the Greenbelt Recreation Center’s soccer field, you would’ve thought David Beckham was in town again.

Right sport, wrong reason.

While the British superstar is creating a buzz for pro soccer at the national level, the Spanish Soccer League is well into its second decade of bringing together the ever-expanding melting pot that calls Staten Island home and calls futbol (not football) its sport of choice.

Around 200 fans — some sitting on aluminum bleachers, others standing on the sidelines, and a few trying to beat the heat by nestling under shady trees that dotted a small slope overlooking one end of the field — watched as the Korabi Soccer Club outlasted United Football Club, 4-3, for the league championship.

The star of the match was Abdulla Begai, a Richmond resident and former standout at nearby Susan Wagner High School and later at Iona College, who scored all of the goals for Korabi, which is comprised primarily of players from Albanian descent.

“We have seven Albanians, three Italians, two Jewish, one Iranian and another from Holland,” said head coach Rusty Papraniku, who also happens to be Begai’s uncle. “It’s a regular United Nations team.”

The same can be said for the entire 14-team league, which is in its 16th year but first season at the new Greenbelt site, which has a beautifully manicured FieldTurf synthetic surface.

“This is the best field on Staten Island,” said Fabio Fonseca, president and founder of the league, which played previously at Corporal Thompson Field in West Brighton. “Our league runs from April till the end of August, or sometimes later. And probably 99 percent of the players are from Staten Island.

“We have players from so many backgrounds. Just from the Latin countries alone, we have Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Peru, Chile and Bolivia. And then we have many Italian-Americans, African-Americans and Albanian-Americans.”

The United Football Club — which, like Korabi, has players ranging in age from late teens to 40-somethings — took its moniker “because we have such a mix of nationalities,” noted team head coach George Watler, whose club includes Liberians, Hondurans and Colombians.

Much like pro soccer teams in Europe, the Korabi — named after a mountain range in the town of Debar, Macedonia, where many of the players have roots — has a sponsor’s name on the front of its uniform.

In this case, it’s the name — and business telephone number — of one of its players: Amir Alishahi, a real estate attorney based in Great Kills.

“I go back a long time with some of these players,” said the 43-year-old Alishahi, who after high school and college soccer careers at Staten Island Academy and Oneonta, respectively, turned down an offer to play professionally for the Louisville Thunder, a now-defunct indoor franchise, and opted for law school instead. “I’ve known some of them since they were babies.”

The now 23-year-old Begai was one of those youngsters, and his four-goal performance offset solo tallies from United’s Leslie Eldridge, Lorenzo Stevens and Fornatee Brapoh.

Stephen Hart is a news reporter for the Advance. He may be reached at hart@siadvance.com.

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